Christian Social Action: Is it worth the effort?

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by Dani Shaw

First presented at the Speak Out online conference and used here by permission of the author.

The Salvation Army has great potential to speak prophetically within our society. Its history of showing practical concern for the needs of suffering humanity and its solid reputation in the countries in which it operates make it particularly well suited to speak publicly on issues of concern. In addition, its continuing focus on mission makes social action a necessary outworking of the faith that undergirds The Salvation Army’s ministry.

Jesus’ public ministry began with a proclamation of good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and the release of the oppressed. The gospel of Jesus is not just a gospel of spiritual salvation. It is also a gospel of hope and healing, and a gospel that challenges the social, cultural, political and religious practices and power structures that leave people poor, imprisoned, physically suffering and oppressed. As the inheritors of Christ’s mission, it is incumbent on the Church to continue to proclaim the presence of the Kingdom of God.

In his book, Community in Mission, Phil Needham argues that the Church exists primarily for the sake of its mission in the world. That mission is fulfilled by “proclaiming and demonstrating the life of the Kingdom that has come in Jesus and by calling the world to this radically new order.”1 This proclamation and demonstration may occur at several levels, including the level of the individual, the family, the local community and even society at large. Phil Needham identifies two primary ways in which the Church gives witness to the gospel, namely evangelism and social action. He defines social action as “an announcement of the Kingdom’s presence … by supporting and participating in the social change for which that presence calls.”2 He states “Without both ways to witness, the proclamation of the gospel is hindered.”3 Social action, if rooted in a Biblical understanding of our call to be salt and light in our world, is a proclamation of the gospel.

Social action is understood in various ways and can take on a variety of forms. When understood as individuals interacting with society in order to achieve a specific goal, social action may consist of raising funds for victims of natural disasters such as tsunamis, forest fires, earthquakes and floods, urging people to demonstrate greater concern for the environment by making different consumer choices or using more environmentally friendly transportation, or by developing methods of doing business that allow companies to make a profit while providing workers with just wages as well as safe and healthy working conditions.

Social action may also include advocating for social or public policy reform. William Wilberforce’s lifelong work to abolish the slave trade, and ultimately slavery, is a shining example of faith-inspired advocacy for social and policy reform. Early Salvationists’ political campaigning against the so-called “white slave trade” in England both raised awareness of the prevalence of child prostitution and led to legislative reform that increased the age of consent to sexual activity first to thirteen and then to sixteen. Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazification of Germany and the subjugation of the Church to state power prior to the Second World War is an equally poignant example of faith-based resistance to disturbing social and political trends.

Despite its early zeal, The Salvation Army in many parts of the world appears to have retreated from advocating for social reform, choosing to focus on its core mission of evangelism and social services. Salvationists, together with non-Salvationist employees and volunteers, have rolled up their sleeves to provide food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless, and healing for the sick. These are important manifestations of Christian mission, but are they sufficient? Is The Salvation Army missing important opportunities by failing to engage the public opinion leaders of our day?

Professor Don Burke has argued that our theology, when linked to a commitment to the establishment of the Kingdom of God:

… should not motivate us so much to the provision of services which are merely ameliorative or cosmetic. The commitment to the Kingdom motivates us to strive for social reform or perhaps, more appropriately, social recreation.4

Although The Salvation Army and the Church at large should play a prophetic role in our society, advocating for social reform, I increasingly wonder whether it can do so within the political sphere. On the one hand, political goals are too often short-term and pragmatic in nature, and are aimed at enabling those in power to remain in power. The transcendent has very little place in politics and it is thus difficult for those who live by a view of the transcendent to contribute to political discourse in a meaningful way. On the other hand, those who engage prophetically with the political leaders of our day too often fail to appreciate the context in which the latter work, and thus risk being seen as ineffective and irrelevant.

In my experience as Christian social justice advocate and a former political adviser to the Prime Minister of Canada and as a senior political advisor to two federal Ministers of Health, I observed that the Church is often ill-equipped and ill-prepared to engage in meaningful public policy dialogue. There is a vast chasm in the political world between the ideal and the real and Christian political advocates too often fail to acknowledge or understand this chasm. The realities in politics are a far cry from the Scriptural vision and ideal of Shalom, even for those devout politicians who seek to integrate their faith and their politics. Christians who fail to appreciate the context in which politicians operate cannot effectively contribute to public policy dialogue.

In my experience, I have observed three key approaches employed by the Church. They are:

  • Speaking Scriptural truths and presuming to speak “prophetically” without any appreciation for the context in which the prophets speak or the politicians operate (an attempt to exercise power over the polis or the political)
  • Enmeshing political and religious values so that the two are mutually reinforcing, and religious voices are little different than secular socially conservative views or secular socialist views (being co-opted by the political)
  • Seeking to engage in constructive, ongoing dialogue, informed by Christian principles without being explicitly so, with practical recommendations flowing out of people’s lived experiences and that incorporate the compromise that must be inherent in any political debate (being salt and light, in the world of politics but not of it)

Those who are unashamedly “religious”, who know they are right and fail to appreciate that others do not share their views, risk being written off as fanatics, kooks, or people who simply don’t get it. Warning non-believers of the coming wrath of God or of the political consequences of a policy change that is contrary to the will of God may encourage the faithful remnant in the pews, but such messages do little to advance the Kingdom and even less to effect meaningful policy reform. Likewise, the theologically liberal among us who simply speak of ideals, promoting a utopian vision of a world yet to come inspired by Biblical stories of times long past, risk being written off as well-meaning do-gooders whose interventions are irrelevant to the very practical and immanent world of politics. Those who engage with politicians need to do so with humility and a certain self-consciousness, recognizing that not all people share their beliefs and their sense of righteousness and sometimes engaging politically means engaging with those with whom we disagree.

Those who are unashamedly political, such as the U.S. Moral Majority, or politicians who invoke the name of God as a seal of approval for their political priorities, find themselves being accused of attempting to impose their morality on the rest of the nation. They confront the contest for power head on, and attempt to win the power for their “team.” Unfortunately, they often end up alienating those with whom they disagree or being co-opted by the political powers of the day. Many believe that evangelical Christianity is synonymous with the Republican Party in the United States. In Canada, some mainline denominations are accused of being the Socialist Party at prayer. In each case, the religious can become indistinguishable from the political and the theologically informed underpinnings that led a group into political discourse in the first place take a back seat to the rough and tumble realities of politics. Such positions cease to be distinctively Christian but rather risk attempting to baptise secular political views with religious gloss or theological platitudes.

Wise Christian political engagement must be based on an understanding of the real world in which real people live and work and suffer and strive, and the rough and tumble and often adversarial and unforgiving world in which politicians work. It requires a gracious appreciation of the compromise that is inherent in resolving any complex societal problem. It requires striking a balance between persuading politicians that the concern the group raises is one worth addressing in its own right and allowing politicians to champion the cause because it will help them politically. It also requires striking a balance between being “authentically Christian,” whatever that may mean, and sufficiently “political” to convince politicians that championing the cause is in their best interest, as well as the best interests of the municipality, the region or the country. It entails, as one Canadian political figure admonishes, being wise as serpents and gentle as doves, being “in” the world of politics and power plays but not “of” it.

Churches that engage in social justice advocacy run the risk of offending the governments of the day, thereby losing credibility, public funding for their social programs or even their legal status as registered charities. They must carefully assess what, if anything, they are prepared to risk for the sake of engaging in a holistic mission of evangelism, social action and advocating for social reform.

Churches that do not engage the power structures of our time equally run the risk of losing credibility among their members or those they serve, becoming complicit in the sins of our culture and society and being discounted as irrelevant.

The dangers of not speaking out against oppressive regimes or unjust laws were acknowledged at the 2001 International Theology and Ethics Symposium. Lieut.- Colonel Trevor Tuck, the Chief Secretary of the Southern Africa Territory, spoke very powerfully about the failure of The Salvation Army to challenge unjust laws in South Africa when he said:

It is not acceptable to simply remain silent in the face of blatant evil when we have the God-given power, authority and influence to be active agents of change and there is no doubt that in South Africa we became captives of our own pietistic tradition which made us believe that it would somehow be sinful to challenge an earthly authority. The failure was in not recognizing that the injunction of Romans 13 needed to be balanced with Revelation 13 and that authority should not be confused with tyranny.5

Like William Booth, Lieut.-Colonel Tuck recognized that it is not just personal sin that holds people back in this world but also the structures within society that can prevent genuine transformation.

The key question is whether we can effectively engage the structures for positive change. In my mind, the jury is still out.


  1. Phil Needham, Community in Mission: A Salvationist Ecclesiology, (The Salvation Army: Georgia, 1987) at p.52.
  2. Ibid, at p. 62.
  3. Ibid. This is echoed in Salvation Story, which says that seeking justice for the oppressed is a way to live out the faith that we share.
  4. Don Burke, “To Establish the Kingdom” in Creed and Deed: Toward a Christian Theology of Social Services in The Salvation Army (John D. Waldron, The Salvation Army Canada and Bermuda Territory: Oakville, 1995) at p. 210.
  5. Lieut.-Colonel Trevor Tuck, “Human Dignity in an Oppressive World,” The Salvation Army International Theology and Ethics Symposium, May 24, 2001 at p.15.


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